February 25, 2014 § 1 Comment
Stella Oh, a student at UNCG who also attends Wellness Academy classes, embarked on an oral history project last summer. She began interviewing peers and staff members at the Association, asking questions about their recovery and what they’ve learned along the way. The following interview with David Cray, peer support specialist and Wellness Academy teacher, is the first in Stella’s Recovery Journeys project.
Describe yourself in a few words.
Creative. Sometimes a little shy. Confident in some ways.
What does recovery mean to you?
For me, it’s the process of dealing with symptoms—hopefully avoiding them, if possible—and overcoming mental illness.
You are a peer support specialist. What is that like?
I learn a lot from being a peer support specialist, especially about how people deal with problems. I like the interaction: It’s fun to feel like I’m helping someone—to see a person who has not been doing so well leave happier.
How has creativity played a role in your life?
It’s been a big part of my life. I went to school for music, and I’m also a writer. Even before I knew much about recovery, I was using music as an outlet and a way to get through problems. I also compose poetry, and I’ve written a book on mental illness that I’m trying to get published.
Tell me more about your book.
It talks a bit about my own story and the things that have helped me recover.
Who is your support system?
My mom and my wife are really supportive, and I have support at work—everybody helps each other here.
What gives you hope?
Well, my spiritual walk. I have a strong belief in God—feeling that God wants to love and help me has given me hope. Seeing other people go through struggles and remain positive gives me a lot of hope.
How do you think the media can better portray people with mental health challenges?
It would be neat if the media talked about how mental illness has actually brought good things into people’s lives. It can be hard thing to accept, but it can also help us grow and learn.
What advice do you have for peers?
Make your recovery a very active, intentional thing. We have to focus on our dreams, because if we give up on them, we’re not going to have a whole lot of hope. Dreams are what make a difference in your life. Also, find a way to get support through groups and social activities; avoid isolation because that can cause a lot of problems.
Speaking of dreams, do you have any for your future?
I’d like to have my book published as well as some books of poetry. I’m in the process of recording a classical guitar album at a studio in High Point. It’s almost done, but the finishing touches are taking a while. I’d like to get that album produced and out there. And I’d like to keep growing in my recovery journey.
Is there a specific crisis moment that you recovered from?
I went through a period when I was involved in things I’m not proud of—drug use, stuff like that. I struggled for a long time. A big part of the problem was my denial: not wanting to believe that something as simple as a substance could be a problem. When I finally got a grip, my spiritual walk began. I quit smoking cigarettes too, which is probably one of the best things I’ve ever done. I didn’t really have a lot of success with quitting until I began learning about God and recovery and got involved in support. I became active in the community too, which gave me a lot more confidence. I volunteered for a while at the Salvation Army. It’s not something I expected to enjoy because I had this negative image of homeless people. When I got there, I started to appreciate everyone’s humanness and the fact that they’re just trying to get through hard situations, and they deserve a good life as much as anyone else. I started feeling compassion toward people that had mental illness and had struggled with the same things as I had. I got involved in Celebrate Recovery, a Christian recovery group along the same line as AA and NA. I played in the band there for five years and that was a lot of fun; being social and finding healthier people to be around was helpful.
What mental health terminology do you think is best?
To me, the issue is not so much the words we use but how we use them. If someone says “mentally ill” with a tone like it’s a terrible thing—then it sounds negative. I try to be sensitive to the individual rather than to the words themselves because I think that’s what makes the difference.
Do you have anything else to add?
I’ve gotten involved in nutrition and exercise, and that’s been really powerful for me. I’m doing a lot of juicing with fruits and vegetables, and I walk every day. It doesn’t even need to be a long walk. When I walk, I’m not thinking of it as exercise—I’m just trying to have fun for 20 minutes, and that makes it easier.
November 20, 2013 § Leave a comment
Research shows that being thankful is good for your physical and mental health. Gratitude can help relieve stress, depression, anxiety, anger, and other negative emotions. People who count their lucky stars tend to be more optimistic, sociable, and engaged in life.
So what exactly is gratitude? Psychologists describe it as maintaining a world view that appreciates the positive. Unlike optimism, which is general hopefulness about the future, gratitude requires recognizing that others helped you toward a happy outcome.
Making a “gratitude list” is a way to strengthen your positive-focused thinking. In fact, it’s often part of 12-step programs for addictions.
With Thanksgiving around the corner, we’d like to make our own gratitude list. We give thanks for:
- the extraordinary people we serve, who continually teach us lessons in resilience, strength, and perseverance
- our staff, who open their hearts and give unstintingly every day
- our funders, who make our free services possible
- everyone who is working to reduce the stigma of mental illness
- the continuing progress of the mental health recovery movement
Last but not least, we’re grateful for the chance to express our gratitude. Now we feel even better!
August 2, 2013 § Leave a comment
The Mental Health Association in Greensboro offers community education on recovery. One recent outreach project was a two-part workshop, “The Power of Hope,” at the Servant Center in Greensboro. This post describes the second workshop, in which participants made vision boards reflecting their hopes and goals.
A pile of magazines. Poster board. Glue. Scissors. With these simple materials, nine men at the Servant Center gave voice to their dreams.
They sat at two broad tables drawn together in the center’s library. They began by leafing through magazines, cutting out words and images that appealed to them. Their instructions were to be instinctive, to let their unconscious come out to play.
“Here’s a great Langston Hughes quote,” one said. He read the first words out loud: What happens to a dream deferred?
“Hey, you’re copying me!” Danny teased Rupert. Both had snipped the word “Vision” out of National Geographic.
Little personal piles of paper accumulated around the table. The men sifted through their piles and began to arrange phrases and pictures on poster board.
The room was quiet, the kind of quiet that comes with concentrated effort. Scissor blades scraped against paper, and the aroma of Elmer’s glue wafted through the room. You could almost imagine these men as children, bent over their school desks, before they served in the military, before prison or addiction or homelessness got in the way of their dreams.
“We need more time. An hour isn’t enough.”
But an hour was all they had, so they conjured their dreams as quickly as possible, then talked about their creations.
“I put ‘Back to School’ on mine because I’m starting college this fall, I’ll be studying substance abuse treatment at GTCC,” Everett explained. “I was dreading doing this activity beforehand. I thought, ‘What’s the point?’ But I really enjoyed it. I’m going to hang my board on the wall.”
Rupert said putting together his vision board inspired him. “I just found out I’ve lost fifty percent of my hearing, but this board makes me feel good.” For him, the creative process was surprisingly fluid: “It just happened. I didn’t even have to think about it.”
Jerome folded his poster board into an oversized book. The first side showed a pendant with a lock. “That represents the years I spent shut up in prison,” Jerome explained. “The upside-down eye stands for insight.” He smiled when he got to the final page of his book, festooned with white-petal flowers and the words “A Different Kind of Perfect.”
Danny’s board had a large, shadowy mountain on it. “That’s the mountain I’ve been climbing all my life,” he said matter-of-factly. Smack dab in the center of the poster board was a straw hat, a jaunty blazer, and a pair of pointy lace-up shoes.
“Why are there clothes but no person?” someone asked.
“I’m working on becoming that person,” Danny answered.
Everyone helped clean up afterward, sweeping the floor, tossing paper scraps into the trash. Danny was the last to leave; he helped carry the heavy bags of magazines outside. “I’m going to keep working on my vision board,” he said. “There’s a lot more I want to do.”
May 30, 2013 § 1 Comment
Dan Fisher has a story to tell.
Some of it is personal.
He was diagnosed with schizophrenia in 1970, while working in the neurochemistry lab at the National Institute of Mental Health. He was trying to find the chemical that would “save” his sister, who was literally starving herself to death. Dan, who had a Ph.D. in biochemistry, got so immersed in the world of the brain that he thought he was a neurochemical. Then he became catatonic.
Next came psychiatric hospitalization—the worst nightmare possible, in many people’s eyes.
For Dan, being hospitalized led him toward his calling. He went on to earn an M.D. from George Washington University Medical School, complete his residency at Harvard, and become a psychiatrist. He worked as a staff psychiatrist and medical director at various mental health centers in eastern Massachusetts for 30 years. He is presently a faculty member in the department of psychiatry at UMass Medical School in Worcester.
Even as he was working within the mental health system, Dan was quietly but firmly challenging it. He didn’t like the traditional medical model that ascribed “mental illness” to a chemical imbalance in the brain. He saw far more influences, including childhood trauma and generational patterns.
He became a change agent, championing the growing recovery movement—a grassroots initiative that gained traction in the late 1980s and 1990s. Led by self-proclaimed consumers, survivors, and ex-patients, the movement stressed that people can and do recover from mental health challenges. Recovery activists began lobbying for mental health services that focused on growth, hope, and social inclusion, not just symptom management.
In 2002, President George W. Bush asked Dan to join the President’s New Freedom Commission on Mental Health. Dan convinced his fellow members to take a recovery-oriented stance, and their resulting report, issued in 2003, reflected that perspective. The man once rendered speechless and motionless by catatonia had helped change national mental health policy.
Dan, who serves as executive director of the National Empowerment Center, does about 18 speaking engagements and workshops a year. The Mental Health Association in Greensboro invited him to Greensboro to hold a community dialogue on recovery and to speak at the 17th Annual Regional Mental Health Conference. “The belief of the people around you is absolutely critical,” he said during the community dialogue. “Hope, hope, hope. It has to be there. Rob the person of hope, and there won’t be any recovery.”
Read more of Dan’s thoughts in the following Q&A.
How do you define recovery?
One characteristic is that it’s individualized—so there is no single definition. Recovery is about contributing and feeling your life has meaning. It doesn’t mean you have to be off medication. And it’s not about symptom reduction. People ask me if I continue to have symptoms. I still experience things, as everyone does, like anxiety and ups and downs. But they don’t keep me from having a meaningful role—therefore I consider myself recovered from schizophrenia. I continue to grow, as I hope everyone does.
Recovery has more to do with social interactions. I’m taken by the Finnish model, which uses an approach called Open Dialogue. It emphasizes meaningful dialogue—feeling you can be heard and influence others. It describes psychosis as a monologue, and recovery as a return to dialogue. Open Dialogue grew out of a system of family therapy, but in this system no one is to blame. Robert Whitaker details this approach in chapter ten of his book, Anatomy of an Epidemic.
Optimism is one of the biggest factors in recovery: if you’re with people who believe in you and have hope for your future, you’re more likely to recover.
What’s your proudest accomplishment?
I’m proudest of my work on the White House Commission on Mental Health. I was the only member with a declared psychiatric condition. At the beginning, the other commissioners were mostly against me in terms of recovery. They came around by the end. I brought in a lot of powerful allies.
What is your favorite quotation?
“Explanation separates us from astonishment, which is the only gateway to the incomprehensible.” ~Eugene Ionesco. This is an astonishing thought, and when I attempt to explain it, it loses its astonishment.
What are some simple things people can do to support the recovery movement?
First, try to overcome what I call the medicalized perspective, which presents the world as a set of programs and goals to be carried out. Try to recognize the importance of connecting to other human beings. Also, influence as widely as possible the policies and politics that are dehumanizing all of us.
What’s the biggest change you’d like to see in mental health policy in the next five years?
I’d like to see mental health policy integrated into public health and wellness, so that a person’s overall health is seen as integral to living. I’d also like to see the demise of direct advertising to consumers by pharmaceutical companies; in its place would be public education about unifying mind, body, and spirit for health.
Why do you think there’s such stigma around mental illness?
First of all, the term “mental illness” itself perpetuates stigma—and the term “stigma” stigmatizes. Conceptualizing these human-life problems as medical illness has been proven to increase discrimination against people who are so labeled. Changing the description of “mental illness” would be very important. I think people have a fear of irrationality— that by being close to people who are thinking differently, they are going to lose their capacity to think in a linear, rational fashion. I believe that contributes greatly to what I prefer to call prejudice and discrimination.
As both a psychiatrist and an advocate with lived experience, where does your allegiance lie?
I put more of my energy, time, and enthusiasm into my role as an advocate. I think change has to happen from outside the system; the system is generally protected against change from within. I tried being in the system for 30 years. Now I spend more of my time trying to galvanize from the outside. I feel a little bit like Robert Oppenheimer [developer of the world’s first nuclear weapons]. I didn’t design bombs, but I worked in the labs, writing the scripts.
Whom do you admire most?
Martin Luther King Jr., Nelson Mandela, Mahatma Gandhi, Abraham Lincoln: They weren’t afraid to go against public opinion for what they believed in. My wife, who works in public health, is a hero of mine. And my two daughters—both of them are pretty fearless about questioning the status quo.
What’s one thing most people don’t know about you?
By nature I’m shy. It took me a long time to feel comfortable speaking to the public. When I was younger, I literally would get sick at the idea of having to give a talk. Having a meaningful reason to speak changed that for me.
May 9, 2013 § 1 Comment
Welcome to the month of May, also known as Mental Health Month.
President Obama even signed a proclamation declaring May “Mental Health Awareness Month.” His statement included the following:
For many, getting help starts with a conversation. People who believe they may be suffering from a mental health condition should talk about it with someone they trust and consult a health care provider. As a Nation, it is up to all of us to know the signs of mental health issues and lend a hand to those who are struggling.
Well said. We might add that words like “suffering,” “struggling,” and “those” perhaps perpetuate negative stereotypes. If we were President—which, of course, we’re not—we might play with the wording:
For many, finding support starts with a conversation. People who believe they may have a mental health challenge might talk about it with someone they trust and consult a health care provider. We all face obstacles at times, and knowing the signs of mental health issues allows us to help ourselves and others.
Our favorite aspect of Mental Health Month is the daily tip offered by Mental Health America. Click here to access all the tips for May. Consider writing each day’s tip on a sticky note and posting it on your bathroom mirror first thing in the morning. Then live the words.
Here are the tips for May 1-10:
1) Call or e-mail a good friend.
2) Reminisce about something hilarious that you’ve seen or done.
3) Take the stairs instead of the elevator.
4) Hold doors open for people.
5) Swap your normal cup of coffee for decaf.
6) Spend ten minutes on a funny website.
7) Eat a salad for lunch or dinner.
8) Take care of your spirit through religion, meditation, or connecting to what you find meaningful.
9) Try to identify the positive aspects of a challenging situation or circumstance.
10) Take ten minutes out of your work day to take a break; consider taking a walk.
And we’ll add one of our own, in celebration of May, spring flowers, and the beauty of growth:
Find a flower—breathe in the smell, notice the color and texture, touch the stem and petals; carry the memory of that flower for the rest of the day.
April 2, 2013 § 1 Comment
The odds were stacked against Antonio Lambert from the start. As a child in Portsmouth, Virginia, he was sexually and emotionally abused. Neglected by his family, he grew into a street-toughened gang member with a driving need for drugs.
By the time he was 17, Antonio had been shot nine times and sentenced to 22 years in prison, where a doctor diagnosed him with depression. After 16 years of incarceration, he emerged feeling lost, hopeless, and desperate to find drugs. He found them—but the high never lasted long enough.
Something had to change or else he’d end up dead or back in prison.
That’s when the call came. His mother had seen a TV ad for Teen Challenge USA, a Christian-based recovery program, and she gave him the phone number. Antonio dialed the number and decided to jump in with both feet; he moved to Greensboro, where Teen Challenge USA had a program. After he completed it, a friend showed him an ad for peer support specialists at a local mental health agency, Envisions of Life. Antonio grabbed the opportunity, even though it paid less than he was making as a warehouse manager. Being a peer support specialist felt like the right fit.
The odds were changing in his favor.
In 2007, Antonio attended a training talk by Steve Harrington, chief executive and founder of the International Association of Peer Specialists. Steve saw something special in Antonio and signed him up as a keynote speaker at an event in Michigan.
“I didn’t even know what ‘keynote’ meant,” Antonio later recalled. “I thought I might have to sing.”
For the people who attended the event, there was music in his words. They drank up the hope in his story and pulled him aside to ask for help with their loved ones. Along with being a peer support specialist and trainer, he was now a public speaker. His reach increased in December 2011, when the New York Times profiled him as part of its Lives Restored series. (Click here to read the article.)
Nowadays Antonio lives in Delaware. He travels the country, training peer specialists, telling his recovery story, speaking at conferences, and doing consulting work. He and Steve Harrington have formed Recover Resources, a company that sells peer support manuals, DVDs, and other educational materials.
We asked Antonio to answer a few questions via e-mail, and he readily agreed, sending his answers from the iPad he carries on his many travels.
Do you ever get back to Greensboro? Yes, I do get back to visit often. I work for an accreditation body by the name of CQL (the Council on Quality and Leadership); we accredit over 200 companies in North Carolina. I also do consulting work for Chris’s Rehabilitation Services in Greensboro. I visit with family and friends when I’m in town—and I go fishing with my best friend, Mr. Harry Lucas.
Any chance you’d be willing to come speak at the Mental Health Association in Greensboro? I trained a few people in peer support at MHAG. It would an honor to speak there.
What have you been up to in the past year? I’ve been doing curriculum development and pilot tests for a SAMHSA grant through the International Association of Peer Specialists. I just completed a pilot training at an organization called Community Access, which is the mother company for Howie the Harp Advocacy Center.
How did the New York Times profile of you in December 2011 impact you? The publicity scared me at first because it was so hard to believe. But, as everything began to fall into place, I saw that the story was getting a lot of people to see what peer support can do, and to understand that people are really hurting and searching for healing help. It also educated a lot of people about forensic peer support. It opened all kinds of doors for me—it also opened the doors for countless peer specialists all over the world!
How many peer specialists do you estimate you’ve trained this year? Coming up on 60.
What do you enjoy most about training peer specialists? Watching students who feel like they can’t do it, and then they get that moment of breakthrough and bloom right before my eyes! I feel like a father watching his child take his or her first steps.
What advice would you offer a beginning peer support specialist? Be careful not to forget your own recovery while assisting others with theirs.
What’s the most rewarding thing about the work you do? Watching people take their independence back and walking with it!
What’s the greatest challenge you face in your life? Remembering to stay ready for this monster called addiction that’s waiting to kill me any chance it gets.
What has been the single most important element in your recovery? Spirituality.
February 28, 2013 § Leave a comment
Guests bid silently on auction items that ran the gamut from jewelry to gift certificates to sculpture.
The big items—three works of art, a week at a beach house, and diamond earrings—went up for live bid.
And lively it was, with bidding sailing into the three and four-digit range. Isti Kaldor’s painting, Bluebird, went for $1,400, setting a record price for the evening.
There were canapés and cupcakes, balloons and bonhomie.
The room reverberated with conversation and the dance-inducing rhythms of the Soul Central Band and Jaybird.
But those who wanted a quiet moment managed to find a place to themselves.
One couple bought a guitar signed by Los Lonely Boys as a surprise gift for their daughter, who wants to learn to play.
By the end of the evening, everybody went home with something—whether an irresistible auction item or the memory of a night well-spent for a worthy cause.